If you follow the sport of throwing, you know by now that Gwen Berry, who in May set an American record in the hammer with a throw of 76.31m, has received a three-month suspension from USADA for “declared or admitted use of a prohibited substance.” Fortunately for Gwen, the suspension will end in time for her to compete in the Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, she will be stripped of her USA Indoors title in the weight throw and her record toss in the hammer. She will also lose $30,000 in prize money and performance bonuses that she had earned so far this year.
Probably most damaging, though, is the loss of reputation that comes with having one’s name associated with the use of a “prohibited substance.” I know that any time I open the sports section and see that a baseball or football player has been suspended for using a “prohibited substance” I immediately assume that the substance involved was steroids and that the player was taking them to enhance his ability to crush a baseball or a running back. I tend to be especially cynical if the athlete has recently set a career high for home runs or RBIs or quarterback sacks. “Oh,” the little voice in the head says. “That’s how they did it.”
But it is important for Gwen’s sake, and for the sake of the sport, that it be understood that her achievements this year had nothing to do with using a “prohibited substance,” and that the substance for which she was sanctioned is a commonly prescribed asthma medication no different in its effect upon the human body than other commonly prescribed asthma medications that are on the WADA list of “approved substances.”
A little background.
Gwen competed collegiately for John Smith at Southern Illinois University, and planned to stay in Smith’s training group after graduation as she pursued her dream of competing in the Olympics. When Coach Smith took a job at the University of Mississippi last summer, Gwen followed him to Oxford.
Gwen had suffered from asthma much of her life, and the Mississippi weather aggravated her condition. According to Coach Smith, it got to the point last fall that she had trouble making it through more than ten throws per practice due to fatigue and dizziness. Seeking relief, she consulted a doctor who put her on an asthma medication known as Breo.
This doctor assured her that Breo contained nothing that could get her banned, that is was essentially the same as another commonly prescribed asthma medication called Symbicort, which is on the WADA list of approved medications.
This is where Gwen made a $30,000 mistake. Athletes are ultimately responsible for what they put into their body, and it turns out that Vilanterol Trifenatate, a component of Breo, is not on the WADA approved list.
This March, after winning the weight throw at the USATF Indoor Championships, Gwen was drug tested and, per normal procedure, was asked to list any medications that she had recently used. Coach Smith told me that he has always directed his athletes to report any medication they might have ingested, “even aspirin” to demonstrate that they had nothing to hide. Accordingly, Gwen indicated that she had been prescribed Breo.
In early May, USADA informed Gwen that she was facing punishment for “declared or admitted use of a prohibited substance.” Nothing had shown up on her tests in Portland, nor in any subsequent tests she was subjected to throughout the spring. Gwen was tested at the meet when she broke the hammer record, and during the 48-hour period afterwards WADA blood-tested her and USADA urine-tested her. All those tests came up negative for prohibited substances. The only reason USADA was aware that Gwen had ingested Vilanterol Trifenatate was because she wrote on the form in Portland that she had taken Breo.
There is no Big Book of Drug Sanctions out there that lists exact penalties for each prohibited substance. USADA is meant to consider extenuating circumstances and to assess a punishment appropriate to the specific violation.
Gwen’s best chance of receiving a minimal ban or possibly even a warning was to prove that she actually had asthma and that her condition was genuinely improved by asthma medication. For help with this she consulted Dr. Robert McEachern. Step one was to put Gwen through what is called “pulmonary function testing” which is essentially a measurement of a person’s ability to breathe. According to Dr. McEachern, this test proved that “Gwen had clinical symptoms that were consistent with asthma.”
Step two was to repeat the test after administering a dose of asthma medication. If Gwen’s ability to breathe improved at least 12% on the medication, then USADA would accept the fact that she genuinely needed to take asthma medication. Dr. McEachern found that Gwen’s breathing improved by 54% when on medication.
So it was clear that Gwen suffered from asthma and needed to be medicated. Unfortunately, this did not change the fact that the medication Gwen had admitted to using, Breo, was on the prohibited list even though Symbicort, which according to Dr. McEachern is so similar to Breo that “we use them interchangeably” was not.
Dr. McEachern was puzzled by this. “If they accept Symbicort, then they ought to accept Breo. If they said all this category of drugs for asthma are performance enhancing, that would be one thing. But to say that one is and one isn’t, that makes no sense to me.”
Dr. McEachern was also troubled by the lack of information readily available to physicians who may one day treat an aspiring Olympian. “I wish they (USADA) had sent something out a long time ago saying ‘if you have any competitive athletes, Breo is not on the approved list.’”
After accepting the fact that Gwen truly needs asthma medication, and that Breo has no more of a “performance enhancing” effect than the approved Symbicort, USADA sanctioned Gwen in a way that would not prevent her competing in the Olympic Trials.
Coach Smith says that after an agonizing month spent contemplating the possible end of her career, Gwen is now able to focus again and will be ready when she steps into the ring in Eugene.
I have been reading the New York Times for thirty years, and today for the first time in my memory a photo of a hammer thrower appeared in its pages. The occasion? A big article on the Russian doping scandal.
When the only publicity the sport of throwing gets is due to a massive doping operation, it is natural for observers of the sport, fans and non-fans alike, to dismiss all the athletes as cheaters. This is especially true when they read that a particular athlete, like Gwen, has been sanctioned for using a prohibited substance with an unfamiliar, impossible to pronounce name.
Hopefully, people will take the time to consider the facts of Gwen’s situation and to understand that though she made a mistake in taking Breo (a mistake for which she had paid dearly) she is not a “cheater” or a “doper.” She is a hard-working young athlete of whom we can be proud if we turn on the television this August and see her taking a flag-draped victory lap around the track in Rio.